Most people want to become wealthier to make themselves happier. Happiness is a complicated subject because everyone is different. But if there's one common denominator in happiness-it's that people want to control their lives.
The most powerful common denominator of happiness is simple, as summed up by Angus Campbell, in his book, "The Sense of Well Being in America". He concluded that having a strong sense of controlling one's life is a more dependable predictor of positive feelings of well being than any of the objective conditions of life we have considered.
More than any tangible thing, control over doing what we want, when we want, with whom we want, is the broadest lifestyle variable that makes people happy, making money's greatest intrinsic value the ability to give you greater control over your time.
The United States is the richest nation in the history of the world and should likely be the happiest. A 2019 Gallup poll of 150,000 people in 140 countries found that about 45% of Americans said they felt a "lot of worry" the previous day. The global average was 39%. Fifty-five percent
of Americans said they felt "a lot of stress" the previous day. For the rest of the world, 35% said the same.
Median family income, adjusted for inflation, was $29,000 in
1955. In 2019, it was over $66,000. We've used that wealth to live a life hardly conceivable to the 1950's American. The median American home increased from 938 square feet in 1950 to 2,436 square feet in 2018. Our cars are faster and more efficient, our TVs are cheaper and sharper. What's happened to our time, on the other hand, barely looks like progress. And a lot of the reason has to do with the kind of jobs more of us now have.
Almost all of our jobs, at one time, required doing things with our hands. In 1870, 46% of jobs were in agriculture, and 35% were in crafts or in manufacturing. Few positions relied on a worker's brain. You didn't think; you labored without interruption, and your work was visible and tangible.
Today, 38% of jobs are now as "managers, officials, and professionals". Another 41% are service jobs that often rely on our thoughts as much as our actions.
Unfortunately, for most, our days don't end when we clock out and leave the factory. More often than not, we take our work with us. We're constantly working in our heads, which means it feels like our work never ends. We might be thinking about unfinished work during our commute home, speaking with a colleague on the phone at the grocery store, or are awakening stressed at three in the morning. It feels like we are working 24/7. Thanks to the computer age, our tools of productivity are no longer limited to the confines of our office.
Compared to prior generations, control over our time has diminished. And since controlling our time is such a key happiness influencer, we shouldn't be surprised that we don't feel much happier, even though we are, on average, richer than ever. We work harder to become wealthier in order to have more free time in our lives, but in doing so, we become less free.
So, what do we do about it?
Everyone is different, and even though there are no general solutions to this problem, it is important to acknowledge what does, and does not, make almost everyone happy.
In his book, "30 Lessons for Living", gerontologist Karl Pillemer interviewed one thousand elderly Americans looking for the most important lessons they learned from decades of life experience. He wrote:
No one-not a single person out of one thousand-said that to be happy, you should try to work as hard as you can to make money to buy the things you want.
No one-not a single person- said it's important to be at least as wealthy as the people around you, and if you have more than they do it's real success.
No one-not a single person-said you should choose your work based on your desired future earning power.
What they did value were things like quality friendships, being part of something bigger than themselves, and spending quality, unstructured time with their children.
We may lose the battle in trying to win more free time, but at least we can, perhaps, make the time we do have happier by focusing on those aspects of life which we view as the most important.